Free Speech and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

Donald Trump is afraid of the U.S. Constitution. That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from his reaction to the silent protesters who were ejected from his campaign rally for displaying pocket Constitutions in Portland, Maine, this week. A headline on NPR’s website — “Protesters Wield Pocket Constitutions at Trump Rally” — might as well have been written by Trump himself, since it seems clear he views pocket Constitutions as deadly weapons he must be protected from.

This hasn’t always been the case. A video posted to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ YouTube channel shows Donald Trump accepting a copy of one printed by Jones’ Infowars TV show.

Trump’s terror of pocket Constitutions only manifested itself after the damage Khizr Khan caused the candidate’s campaign after the Democratic National Convention. Trump’s poll numbers have plummeted since he waged war with the Gold Star father, who held up a pocket Constitution during his speech in Philadelphia last week.

After the Khan incident, Trump reacts to pocket Constitutions like a vampire reacts to holy water.

At the campaign rally in Portland, several protesters rose from their seats amid a mob of 1,600 screaming Trump supporters and stood silently, displaying small pocket Constitutions as Khan had done. Trump was instantly rendered speechless when the booklets were displayed. He stopped his speech, calling the mob’s attention to the silent protesters, and said, “Do whatever you want.” He resumed his speech only after security expelled the constitutionalists from the rally.

“Well, you have to say, you know, a Trump rally is the safest place in our country to be, believe me,” Trump said afterward.

But his rallies haven’t been the safest place for protesters, who have been violently assaulted by his supporters at past Trump events. The Republican candidate is correct that his rallies are a safe space for his supporters to exercise their free speech rights. Especially since it has become increasingly dangerous for them to speak out in public spaces protected by the First Amendment.

In New York City, Black Lives Matter protesters physically ejected a lone Donald Trump supporter from City Hall Park earlier this week, claiming that the indisputably public space was, in fact, for “black and brown lives.” A gaggle of television cameras and press photographers recorded the incident. The man was violently pushed out of the park as the mob chanted, “Racists out!”

The NYPD officers who were present to protect the Black Lives Matter protesters’ First Amendment rights did nothing to protect the Donald Trump supporter’s rights.

On July 30, in Buffalo, New York, a “White Lives Matter” rally organized by the Detroit-based neo-Nazi group the National Socialist Movement (NSM) was shut down by counter-protesters. Karl Hand, a Racial Nationalist Party candidate for the Senate, was scheduled to speak at the rally. According to local news reports, only a few people showed up to hear Hand, who was prevented from speaking by hundreds of counter-protesters.

A video of the event shows a man wearing a green “White Pride” T-shirt being surrounded and overwhelmed by the mob, who tore the offending T-shirt from his body. Police, who had to rescue the man, ejected him from the public park.

“I came to hear what (Hand) had to say. Obviously I won’t be able to do that,” attendee Anthony Chaman told a reporter for The Post-Standard in Syracuse.

So much for the protection of First Amendment rights and freedom of speech in Buffalo.

Incidents involving the suppression of free speech by others in public spaces are increasing in frequency. When they involve unpopular groups, like white supremacists, they are rarely acknowledged or condemned by free speech organizations such as the New York Civil Liberties Union. We asked the NYCLU for comment on the two incidents which occurred in New York, but we have revealingly yet to receive a response.

The video of the Buffalo incident also showed a woman telling Hand: “You are sick people … the rest of the United States is going to trample you out.”

And she may very well be right. But if unpopular voices are silenced, no matter how offensive their message, America will have ceased to resemble the nation envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution.

In 1783, during an address to Army officers at Newburgh, New York, George Washington warned, four years before he would preside over the Constitutional Convention, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York.